Most executives are incompetent when it comes to onboarding into a new role. That’s not a problem – just so long as they are conscious of their incompetence and get help.

Successfully moving into a new leadership role requires converging into the team first, and then evolving the team. The issue is that converging and evolving require different knowledge and skills. Applying the things that work in leading or evolving a team when someone is trying to converge into a team is not just unproductive, it’s counterproductive.

A core insight is that new leaders cannot lead until they have established a working relationship with their followers.

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The conscious competence model applies:

    • Unconscious Competence: Have the knowledge and the skills. (Can make music.)
    • Conscious Competence: Have the knowledge, but not the skills. (Know how to play notes. Can’t quite make them flow.)
    • Conscious Incompetence: Know enough to know you have neither knowledge, nor skills. (Very uncomfortable state.)
    • Unconscious Incompetence: Don’t know enough to know what knowledge or skills you need.  (Ignorance is bliss.)


Unconscious Competence in Leading

Most people spend more time doing jobs than they do onboarding into jobs. Thus they get more practice at inspiring and enabling others than they do in assimilating into the team themselves. Through this practice they become unconsciously competent.


Incompetence in Onboarding

At best, these same people are consciously competent at onboarding. The consciously competent are the ones that put together fifteen page step-by-step onboarding plans. Like newly licensed drivers of cars, they have unpracticed knowledge and generally do fine – just so long as they pay careful attention to each step and things happen as expected.

Others are consciously incompetent in onboarding. They know enough to know they need help. They do fine when they get help from someone who is competent in onboarding – whether that person is their boss, HR partner, or other mentor or coach.

Many of the 40% of executives that fail in their first 18 months are unconsciously incompetent at onboarding. They misapply knowledge and skills that work in other situations, but don’t work in onboarding. This looks like a poor fit, an inability to deliver, or an inability to adjust, and it may be so.  Often the root is in avoidable mistakes while onboarding.


The Cure

These issues go away if the executive realizes his or her relative incompetence. There is no shame in not being an expert at moving into a new job.  Non-experts can be successful by playing to their conscious competence with a carefully thought through and executed plan or by getting help from someone more expert in this area.

This is a good example of step 2 of The New Leader’s PlaybookEngage the Culture and Your New Colleagues in the Right Context

Be careful about how you engage with the organization’s existing business context and culture. Crossing the need for change based on the context and the cultural readiness for change can help you decide whether to Assimilate, Converge and Evolve (fast or slow), or Shock.

Click here to read about each step in the playbook

Click here for YouTube videos highlighting each step